Monty Berman, Robert S. Baker
Starring: Lee Patterson, Eddie Byrne, Betty McDowall, John Le Mesurier
A gruesome killer known as Jack the Ripper has begun targeting women in the Whitechapel area of Victorian London. Inspector O”Neill with Scotland Yard teams up with a visiting American, Detective Sam Lowry, to try to get to the bottom of the killer’s identity. Lowry also gets involved with Anne Ford, a young woman working at a Whitechapel hospital against the protests of her uncle and guardian, a doctor who also doesn’t approve of Lowry. Soon, Lowry and O’Neill begin to wonder if the uptight doctor has a connection to the Whitechapel murders…
I’m admittedly a huge fan of Jack the Ripper-themed films, so much so that I’m generally able to ignore their often deep-seated flaws. Jack the Ripper is one of the first films about the mysterious, legendary killer, and is possibly the first to directly portray Saucy Jack and focus on his crimes. Earlier attempts like Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), John Brahm’s remake of The Lodger (1944), and Man in the Attic (1953) avoid historical accuracy and invent murderous characters with fictional names and back stories. Admittedly, Jack the Ripper doesn’t rely too heavily on the actual facts of the Ripper case either — though it is based in 1888 and makes good use of the Victorian setting — and the real crimes provide a loose framework for a story about a wealthy male preying upon lower class females.
Part of the appeal of Jack the Ripper as a fictional character is that the real life killer was never discovered, leaving the figure ripe for embellishment — not only as the source of fiction, but as the inspiration for dozens (possibly hundreds at this point) of cockamamie theories about Jack’s identity. Jack the Ripper builds on one of the more plausible theories that originated with Australian journalist Leonard Matters: that the Ripper was a medical man getting revenge for a son who dies of syphilis, which he contracted from a whore. There are a few doctor characters, so I’m not giving much away, but the film isn’t too careful about hiding the identity of the killer. The real mystery lies in his motivations. It’s clear he’s targeting prostitutes (though the film refuses to call them that directly), but he calls them by a woman’s name, the woman he is hoping to kill. In a clever turn, this isn’t revealed until Jack the Ripper’s final moments.
The film’s major flaw is that it suffers from a case of uncertain identity. It would perhaps benefit from following something closer to a slasher formula, but it has moments of smutty dance hall drama, police procedural, and Victorian romance. The perspective jumps around far too much and doesn’t really settle on one solid protagonist. In the first half of the film, this role is given to the New York detective, but it leaves him behind in the second half to follow his love interest, Anne, and a series of victims. Regardless of this issue, this is just one of many British horror films to focus on the fascinating interplay between upper class politicians and businessmen, middle class police officers, and lower class victims/bystanders. This tension between the acceptability of those interested in smut — the wealthy men who frequent smarmy dance halls and are regularly entertained by prostitutes — and those victimized by it is the film’s focal point.
Directed by producers (and sometimes co-writers and co-cinematographers) Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker for Mid Century Film Productions, this isn’t something that I can recommend to everyone, but interested parties can find it on DVD. It’s got nothing on Horrors of the Black Museum, but it’s a mindlessly pleasant way to pass the time for Ripper enthusiasts or anyone who enjoys early Scotland Yard procedurals. It might be low budget, but there are plenty of chilling scenes set in the thick London fog and if the directors do anything right, it’s making the most of the Victorian-style set and costumes. I’d also really love a chance to catch the alternate French version, which has more sex and gore, including topless and nude scenes set in the seedy dance hall.
This might not be the best Jack the Ripper film — that distinction either goes to Murder by Decree, the concluding bit of The Ruling Class, or even Time After Time — but it wouldn’t be out of place in any Ripper-themed movie marathon. Later in my British horror series, I’ll also be taking a look at the similarly themed A Study in Terror (1965), where Sherlock Holmes meets Saucy Jack, and Hammer’s fantastic riff on the topic, Hands of the Ripper (1971). In this case, Jack the Ripper is really just an appetizer for Hammer’s more delectable main course.